Indigenous people have developed exceptional water catchment and storage techniques over the ages, out of necessity. We'd like to share a few that we are most impressed by, here:
These photographs of water catchment in the Altilano of Bolivia illustrate techniques adopted by permaculture designers, used in a very challenging environment. The water canals, similar to "chinampas" (see next link), help regulate temperature which can be quite variable on the high, dry plains. The rock piles can also regulate temperature and also hold moisture. We find the on contour canals especially interesting, a way to spread water through the landscape and allow it to sink in.
Chinampas, which are man made fingers of farmland surrounded by water on 3 sides, are a viable solution for farming in Florida where land may flood during heavy rain events. There are many styles of farming on water or the water's edge, and many cultures have incorporated some version of this style of farming. It is a form of aquaculture as it utilizes the fertility created by a living body of water to feed plants. The Aztecs used chinampa style farming with great success.
Many believe that chinampas subirrigate plants, but some of the biggest advantages appear to be fertility and frost prevention. Chinampas are not necessarily a good solution for wetlands, as wetland systems provide highly important ecosystem services to the surrounding areas including water purifcation, flood protection, shoreline stabilization, groundwater recharge, streamflow maintenance, and habitat for fish and wildlife including endangered species. In Florida, a number of wetlands are protected because of the importance of these services to the survival of major urban areas and farmland (groundwater recharge, purification and streamflow maintenance being key).
With a modified version of chinampas, we use sheet mulch to create raised beds that can then absorb water in a major rain event, while preventing plant roots from standing in water.
Terraquaculture is one of the most sustainable ways of growing crops in the world, and has been used for many hundreds of years in Asia. One of the most interesting aspects of this agriculture for us is the necessity for farmers to cooperate closely in order to control the flow of water, especially during heavy rains and drought. This system spreads water throughout a mountain slope through a series of terraces and gates. A characteristic of many ancient water systems is cooperation and coordination between everyone who is dependent upon the water.
Native Americans in the desert southwest, many of whom have been farmers for thousands of years, developed a number of methods to water their crops. They used complex systems of canals, planted crops in shallow pits to catch more water, and slowed water in streams and rivers to prevent erosion. They placed rocks in strategic places to slow water flow and protect soil. Like many indigenous cultures, they observed what water was doing in the landscape and replicated the structures that brought great results.
The Hopi used springs to water their crops and had spiritual traditions that ensured that the springs would not be overused and run dry. They, like many tribes, also developed cultivars of staple food like maize (such as Hopi blue corn) that are highly drought tolerant. Some indigenous cultivars have been lost because of cultural upheavals, and springs on the Hopi Mesa have been going dry, in large part because Peabody Coal has been drawing down the aquifer to slurry coal. Water wars in the west have intensified because of the drought and Native Americans are fighting to maintain any water access.
One organization that is doing some great work incorporating some of the ancient techniques and enhancing them to revitilize desertified lands is the Quivera Coalition.
We continue to learn much from studying ancient food production and water conservation techniques. The best of these techniques have been in use for hundreds of years or longer, because they work. These are a few of hundreds of techniques used by indigenous people that would be far less damaging to soils and ecosystems, less damaging to underground water supplies, less expensive, better for plants, and more drought resistant than modern irrigation methods.
Some of these techniques are still in extensive use, like terraquaculture, but are losing ground to modern, much less sustainable agricultural practices. The history of the destruction of these techniques is a history of bad design decisions ending in tragic results. This tragic destruction, which may need to remedied for several generations in the future, could have been avoided by applying these concepts, from Bill Mollison: "Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labour; & of looking at plants & animals (and humans!) in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system."
For further study, see: